Mar 7, 2008

On Hesse

I think the Buddha comes across as a bit selfish.

Really. Look at him. He's just sitting there all serene like, and then vanishes off into whatever Nirvana is. More power to him for being "enlightened" (whatever that is), for being at ease with himself, for knowing how to sit, think, be calm etc. All good skills. I wish I could do that.

But, you serene bastard, get up and do something.

Don't just sit there, satisfied with the peace and nicety of your own head and emotion. Don't just walk out on the world once you've become satisfied with the your neat mental state. Don't think you're done. You're not. And besides, why on earth are you so eager to escape from earthly existence anyway? Suffering? Yeah, it's suffering. It's also joy and exploration and learning and everything. If, after my death, some divine thing in the antechamber of non-existence asked me "Want another go?" I'd say, "Yeah! Get me out of this bardo and into existence again! Fuck nirvana, I want suffering, joy, fear, panic, learning, exhilaration and all of it! Keep your nothing- I'll be busy with everything."

Of course, there's a bit more to Buddhism than that, but those my thoughts on it in a nutshell. Not that I'm completely disapproving of Buddhism- there are too many varieties of it to generalize (like I just did) and some of it is quite intriguing, even to a nonbeliever such as myself. But, I think it overshoots in a few key places.

Which brings me to Herman Hesse.

I recently read both The Glass Bead Game and Siddhartha, both of which I liked a great deal. One of the reasons that I enjoyed them so much is that in both novels the characters do find a wonderful balance between contemplation and action, thinking and doing. The principal characters of each novel, at the end of each book, seem responsible. The Buddha may only sit there, reject the world, and do nothing, but Hesse's characters conjure up the image of one of those serene faces speaking, those lotus-position legs uncrossing and walking, those folded hands being raised to action.

The Glass Bead Game (which, it turns out, has little to do with glass beads) takes place in approximately the 25th century or so after modern society has destroyed itself. In the nameless country where the book takes place, a specific province, Castalia, has been given over entirely to art, academics, and study. Ostensibly, the purpose of the province is to act as a wellspring of knowledge and a training center for teachers.

In Castelia, the cloistered, privileged scholars play what is called the Glass Bead Game, an elaborate ritual and meditation that draws upon, organizes, and arranges all of the culture, science, philosophy, art, and knowledge that human society has ever produced. Throughout the book, the Game is variously and conflictingly portrayed both as the summation of all scholarship, and as a staid substitute for it. The Castelians produce nothing new. New art, new research, and new inquiry are all nonexistent. There is only the maintenance of things that have come before, meditations upon the past.

The main character, Joseph Knecht, rises through the ranks of Castalia, and his ultimate decisions strike a fine balance between repudiating and venerating the ivory tower. His experience of meditating on the past has value, but he realizes that it is not enough, that thought must be coupled with action, and that while one can learn much from withdrawing from the outside world, one must also slip back into it and help it.

In Siddhartha, the main character tries just about everything over the course of his life. He's raised a Brahman, and learns the conventional ways of the upper class. He follows wandering mendicants, follows the Buddha for a while, leaves him to have great sex with the best courtesan ever, becomes a wealthy merchant, ODs on vice, drink, and gambling, gets soft, leaves everything again, and finds value in all of his experiences. And that's what I really liked about Siddhartha- at the end of the book the character has a bit of debate with a Buddhist monk in which he explains that he loves the world for what it is, rather than what it will become.

The Buddhist monk describes himself as a seeker, Siddhartha counters by saying that if one is a seeker, one might do very little finding. Being focused on a goal can blind someone to finding the other things around them. They see only the goal and the things that lead to it, they miss the wonders and other things that the world has to offer (as an oftentimes goal-oriented person, this was a nice little reminder). If that goal is Heaven or Nirvana, one can miss the wonders of worldliness.

Rocks, for instance, are awesome. Not because they once were part of a mountain, or could be melted and made into tools. Sure, those things are cool, too, but a rock is nifty because of it's rockiness. Because of it's immediate being, because of it's apparency.

Same with people. People aren't awesome because they might go on to Nirvana or Heaven or whatever. Goodness and love aren't worthwhile because they'll lead to these ethereal rewards. This stuff is worthwhile because, like Kant says, people are ends in and of themselves. As a devoted non-nihlistic secular person, this is something that I find immensely valuable. It's a way of looking at the world, looking at morality, and looking at love that is free from the oppressive rationalization of heavenly rewards.

Such a world view demands engagement, demands action. Joseph Knecht decides that he is obliged to help the world, that satisfaction with his own private, academic Nirvana is not enough. Siddhartha decides that the sacredness he seeks can be found immediately around him, and that all the experiences of the world can lead to it. Experience and life are of immediate and apparent value, and such a world demands our compassion.

At least this is my reading of Hesse. My feeling of both of the characters is one of immense responsibility. They find the value in meditation, and when they wake up, they impart their knowledge on others. And, that waking is not a failure, but a part of the cycle. Interaction with the world is not something to be lamented or mourned, but something that is intrinsic to what could be called enlightenment. In other words, get me out of this bardo and into existence again. Fuck nirvana, I want suffering, joy, fear, panic, learning, exhilaration and all of it. Keep your nothing- I'll be busy with everything.

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